Neuropsychology of hypnosis

hypnosis_pocket_watch.jpgSeed Magazine discusses how researchers are exploring the neuropsychology of hypnosis to understand this curious state of mind.

Hypnosis fell out of favour in psychological circles as it got taken up by ‘stage hypnotists’, and researchers found out that, contrary to the movie stereotypes, hypnosis actually increases the number of false memories recalled, rather than making remembering more accurate.

Furthermore, ‘hypnotherapy’ seems not to be hugely effective on the current evidence. For example, trials of hypnosis for pain relief when giving birth and smoking cessation have shown mixed results, although it is known to be difficult to design effective trials because hypnotisable individuals are known to be psychologically different from others.

What is a reliable finding, however, is that in particularly susceptible individuals, hypnosis can be used to cause unusual experiences.

Particularly, it is being used as a model of what is alternatively called ‘conversion hysteria’ or ‘conversion disorder‘, where a person might show physical symptoms, such as paralysis, but where they arise from a psychological cause.

Recent experiments have used hypnosis as a way of causing a temporary and reversible paralysis. Participants are then put in a brain scanner to determine which parts of the brain are active, and compared to people with diagnosed conversion disorder.

It turns out that hysterical paralysis may involve similar brain areas to hypnotic paralysis, but shows different patterns of activation to people asked to ‘fake’ a paralysis.

These are interesting findings and may provide an insight into the operation of how the unconscious influences our conscious life.

Nevertheless, thorough investigations into the neuroscience of hypnotic states will still need to be conducted, and Seed Magazine tackles some of the latest research in this area.

Link to article ‘Science finally tackles hypnosis’.

Encephalon 9 arrives

red_bg_brain.jpgThe latest edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just arrived on the net with plenty of musings on the mind and brain to keep you occupied.

Favourites include an article on the balance of activation in the cortical hemispheres and the link to paranormal experiences, and a discussion of a recent critical article on the cognitive neuroscience of education.

SciAmMind on microexpressions and gestures

sciammind_oct2006.jpgA new issue of Scientific American Mind has arrived on the shelves with a couple of freely accessible articles on microexpressions and communication through gestures available online.

Microexpressions are like any other facial expression, but they are very subtle and occur incredibly quickly, coming and going in several hundred milliseconds.

Paul Ekman, largely known for his discovery that many facial expressions of emotion were universal, has been particularly keen on researching microexpressions in recent years.

It is thought that these fleeting expressions give away the inner emotional state (and maybe whether someone is lying), because they are under less conscious control than more obvious facial expressions.

The other freely available article is on the gestures we make when talking, that potentially give an insight into the hidden psychology that belies our words.

Our body movements always convey something about us to other people. The body “speaks” whether we are sitting or standing, talking or just listening. On a blind date, how the two individuals position themselves tells a great deal about how the evening will unfold: Is she leaning in to him or away? Is his smile genuine or forced?

The same is true of gestures. Almost always involuntary, they tip us off to love, hate, humility and deceit. Yet for years, scientists spent surprisingly little time studying them, because the researchers presumed that hand and arm movements were mere by-products of verbal communication. That view changed during the 1990s, in part because of the influential work of psycholinguist David McNeill at the University of Chicago.

Link to contents of October 2006 SciAmMind.
Link to article ‘A Look Tells All’.
Link to artice ‘Gestures Offer Insight’.

Art, psychology or empty room?

gallery_space_recall_image.jpgI arrived in Cardiff on Friday to give a talk with artist Simon Pope on our art / science collaboration Walking Here and There to find the exhibition made the front page of the South Wales Echo with the headline “It’s an empty room… So why on earth do they think it is art?”.

The exhibition, entitled ‘Gallery Space Recall‘, is indeed an empty gallery, with nothing but the words ‘You are invited to recall from memory a walk through a gallery space’ written on the wall.

The only other component is that we’ve trained the gallery assistants to use a few psychological techniques to encourage people to expand on the impact and significance of their memories while they take visitors around the gallery. Vistors are encouraged to recall a previous gallery space they’ve visited, as if their remembered exhibition were in the space of Chapter Arts Centre.

With all credit to Simon, while the work is part of Walking Here and There, the wonderful idea for this part was all his.

The exhibition aims to highlight the role of memory and location in how we understand and appreciate art, and relate to our environment.

Artists aim to convey meaning with their work, communicating concepts and invoking ideas in new and challenging ways. However, psychology and neuroscience has known for over a century that meaning is something which is constructed and reconstructed by the mind and brain (Bartlett’s ‘War of the Ghosts‘ experiment is a famous example).

baby_gallery_space_recall.jpgThe perception of everything from the simple visual world to complexity of visual art is directly dependent on our past experience. This is known as ‘top-down’ processing [pdf], and is obvious in the brain where the visual system is massively connected to memory areas.

Also, the personal significance of art depends on your memories. A piece might invoke strong emotions because it connects with past experiences, in turn making it more memorable, as emotionally arousing events are recalled better than others.

So where does the meaning in art actually lie? In the object itself, or in your interpretation of it?

Gallery Space Recall removes the object and relies entirely on your memory. So where does the art exist here? In the visitor’s mind? In a past gallery recalled by the visitor? In the mind of the gallery assistant who is listening to the visitor reminisce? In Simon’s idea? Or, perhaps, all of them?

This is exactly where Simon’s work and my work overlap, as we’re both interested in how memory and its distortions affect our understanding of the world.

It’s interesting that none of the artists interviewed for the outraged South Wales Echo article actually objected to the idea (in fact, they seemed to quite like it), but just to the fact that an empty gallery got funded.

gallery_space_recall_conversation.jpgI think we can confidently say that this is the cheapest exhibition that the gallery has ever put on, actually leaving more money for other artists. Consequently, it’s probably the cheapest publicity they’ve ever had too.

Further stages of the collaboration look at how the breakdown of memory, in delusions and psychosis, highlight the importance of remembering in our perception of reality.

The slides from the talk are online [powerpoint format] if you want more information, or keep tabs on the Walking Here and There website to see how the project progresses.

We’ll also be discussing the project at Goldsmith’s College, University of London, this Wednesday at 4pm (details here) and the exhibition is on until November 5th.

Link to Walking Here and There website.
Link to description of Gallery Space Recall.
Link to photos of opening.
Link to ‘Art? Or just an empty room?’ from the South Wales Echo.
ppt file of powerpoint slides from gallery talk.

SfN special edition of Synapse

neurocontrarian_sfn_photo.jpgFor those wanting to catch the vibe from the recently ended 2006 Society for Neuroscience annual conference in Atlanta, the latest edition of The Synpase psychology and neuroscience writing carnival is an SfN special.

There’s also been some good coverage on reanimated Nature Neuroscience blog Action Potential if you want an alternative slant on proceedings, and some photos of the event have been put online by Neurocontrarian.

2006-10-20 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:


Cooking with sleeping pill Ambien!

ABC Radio’s science show Ockham’s Razor compares behaviour across the animal kingdom and asks ‘What counts as intelligence?’

New Scientist reports on a wonderfully designed study suggesting that facial expressions might be inherited to some degree.

Apparently, I am not pictured smoking a large reefer on mental health blog The Trouble with Spikol.

A correlation between TV watching and autism causes a stir. Original paper here.

Was Agatha Christie’s previously unexplained temporary disappearance due to a ‘fugue state’? A rare memory disorder.

The Guardian looks at recent research suggesting a link between omega-3 intake and violence.

The New York Review of Books has philosopher John Searle reviewing Humphrey’s “Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness”.

New Scientist reports that the initial trials for gene therapy reduces Parkinson’s disease symptoms.

“Psychological harm is not a disease of the mind”

When the law and the mind come together…

The former Tory leader Iain Duncan-Smith appeared on the Today programme this morning, promoting his call for a new law to be introduced to punish people who drive their partners to suicide. He says the current 1861 Offence Against the Person Act is inadequate because it requires a retrospective diagnosis of psychiatric illness in the person who killed themselves.

Enter criminal barrister John Cooper who believes the current Act works perfectly well. He says the law already states that psychiatric harm is assault. He explains:

“It’s very difficult to prove psychological harm. Psychological harm is not a disease of the mind. A psychiatric condition is a disease of the mind. But the law has to have clarity in this respect. We can section people under a mental health order. We can say a person is unfit to plead if they are psychiatrically troubled. That’s because we can prove it by a disease of the mind. It all gets very woolly when we bring in psychology”.

Well that’s cleared that up then.

Link to audio file of the discussion.


brains_rule_logo.jpgBrainsRule! is a neuroscience website for kids.

It’s along the lines of the University of Washington’s Neuroscience for Kids but focuses more on interactivity and has sections for teachers and professionals.

There’s plenty of great resources there, although the talking brain on the front page is a little bit disturbing. Maybe it’s the lipstick which does it.

You can even get neuroscience merchandise (some of it for free) including a BrainsRule lunch bag!

Link to BrainsRule! website.

Reclaiming imagination: art, psychosis and creativity

dysart_starry_night_image.jpgABC Radio’s All in the Mind has just broadcast a panel discussion on psychosis and creativity by three artists who have had their own experience of altered states.

The discussion was part of an exhibition and conference entitled ‘For Matthew and Others: Journeys with Schizophrenia’ that is being held at the College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales and includes a number of artists influenced by schizophrenia.

The panel consisted of artists James de Blas, Simon Champ and Martin Sharp, the latter famous for a number of landmark psychedelic album covers from the 60s and illustrations for the notorious Oz magazine.

They cover a wide range of topics, and largely avoid the hackneyed discussion about whether madness and genius and different sides of the same coin, and don’t always agree on mental influences on the creative process.

Link to audio and transcript of ‘Reclaiming imagination: art, psychosis and the creative mind’.

The psychology of rumours

rumor_psych_book.jpgBoingBoing has alerted me to the fact that a book on psychology of rumours has just been published.

The book is by two psychologists, Profs Nicholas DiFonzo and Prashant Bordia who have been researching the topic and have consulted on legal cases where rumours have been involved.

It is entitled Rumor Psychology (ISBN 1591474264) and tackles the function and structure of rumour and gossip, and distringuishes between these two forms of social communication.

Exactly what is rumor, and how does it differ from gossip? Even though these terms are commonly used interchangeably, they differ greatly in function and content. While gossip is evaluative social talk that provides social network formation and group solidarity, rumor functions to make sense of an ambiguous situation or to help people adapt to perceived or actual threats. Why do people spread and believe rumors? Rumors are an enduring feature of our social and organizational landscapes. They attract attention, evoke emotion, incite involvement, affect attitudes and actions—and they are ubiquitous. Rumor transmission is motivated by three broad psychological motivations—fact-finding, relationship-enhancement, and self-enhancement—all of which help individuals and groups make sense in the face of uncertainty.

In fact, you can take part in their research online, by completing a survey that asks about a rumour and how you heard about it or discussed it with others.

I’ve not read the book, but I’m always fascinated by books on the psychology of seemingly mundane behaviour.

A recent book by sociologist Charles Tilly, entitled “Why?” (ISBN 069112521X) analysed the reasons people use to explain events or behavior.

He lists four basic types of reasons: conventions (socially accepted clich√©s like “My train was late,” or “We’re otherwise engaged that evening”), stories (simplified cause-effect narratives), codes (legal, religious) and technical accounts (complicated narratives, often impenetrable to nonspecialists).

He argues that the type of reason we give is often determined by the social relation to the people we are talking to in any given situation.

Link to more info on book.
Link to article on Tilly’s arguments in “Why?”.

Talking here and there

glass_tunnel_walk.jpgDuring the coming week, artist Simon Pope and I will be giving a couple of talks on Walking Here and There – an art / science collaboration project that aims to investigate the interaction of place and memory in psychosis, and particularly reduplicative paramnesia, the delusional belief that a place exists in two or more locations simultaneously.

The first will be at 4pm this Friday (20th) at the Chapter Gallery in Cardiff, as part of Simon’s solo exhibition Gallery Space Recall. The discussion will be followed by a participation event in the gallery where you can experience a tour through a remembered exhibition.

The second will be at 4pm, on Wednesday 25th of October at Goldsmiths College, University of London, as part of the 2006 Whitehead Lectures on Cognition, Computation and Creativity. This talk will take place in the Pimlott Lecture Theatre, Ben Pimlott Building on Goldsmiths campus (location details).

I’ll be talking about the science and neuropsychology of reduplicative paramnesia and we’ll both be discussing how we’ve found trying to combine our disciplines to better understand space and location, as well as unusual states of mind.

Unfortunately we didn’t got much choice over timing, and we realise 4pm isn’t the most convenient time for most people to attend a talk, but we hope to do some more in the future during more accessible slots.

Plus, there’ll be a chance to participate in the experimental stage of the project for anyone who wishes to volunteer. More on this when the time comes!

Link to Walking Here and There website.
Link to details of Goldsmith’s talk.
Link to details of Gallery Space Recall at Chapter.

Pay-per-play mental gynastics

wash_post_pumping_neurons.jpgThe Washington Post asked one of their journalists to test-drive several of the increasing number of ‘cognitive fitness’ websites that have online games and puzzles specifically designed to increase mental performance.

Although there isn’t a massive amount of research on the subject, the little research there is suggests that staying mentally active, particularly during later life, can increase or maintain mental abilities.

The success of Nintendo’s Brain Age cartridge has spawned an industry of ‘mental workout’ computer games, many of which are now available on pay-for-use websites.

The Washington Post article gives a brief run-down of some of the science that motivates these companies, and tries out several of the websites for size.

Interestingly, the Post also got research psychologists to comment on the sites to see if their tasks were likely to be doing what they claimed.

Link to Washington Post article ‘Pumping Neurons’.